Here's Something: Ban smartphones in school

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School has become a political battleground.

What we teach, how we teach, why we teach, and, of course, how we protect the kids are all topics important to many inside and outside the educational system.

We’ve put a lot of effort and taxpayer money into reforming education. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Maine Learning Results, outcome-based education, standards-based curriculum, Common Core, proficiency-based diplomas – there are a thousand education-related schemes out there, one for every education “expert” trying to make a name.

But in their zeal to build a better mousetrap, administrators have overlooked one thing: Before you can teach Johnny to read, you’ve first got to pry that dang cell phone out of his little, preoccupied, distracted hand.

And for a nation that since the advent of the iPhone in 2007 has become addicted to its smartphones, that’s a tall order. Ask any teacher or parent who’s tried reasoning with a kid hopped up on social media; it’s like dealing with an opiate addict who can’t deal with life without his favorite drug of choice, in this case a hand-held digital coping mechanism.

If you can’t reason with the internet-addled students, there is another option, at least during the school day. Do as the French have recently done: Ban the stupid smartphone altogether.

Yes, the unlikeliest of places, France, in late July banned cell phones for students ages 3-15. The ruling by the education minister, which was a plank in the campaign of President Emmanuel Macron, follows a 2010 law that banned cell phone use by all students during instruction time. The new law bans all cell phone use throughout the school day, even on the playground and between classes.

I naively assumed schools in Maine banned phones years ago. I thought for sure the strict school environment of my youth, which even eschewed the chewing of gum as a distraction punishable by death – or, at least, detention – would wisely bemoan the use of smartphones. Not so.

Sure, some teachers may try to curtail their use, but there’s no overarching ban. There needs to be one, and I hope, as we embark on another school year, that our state or national educational leaders have the wisdom and bravery to do something to keep the distracting devices from affecting learning.

There’s nothing like a cell phone, or the prospect of soon using one, to keep kids from paying attention. And their use doesn’t just impact the user; everyone within the “cone of distraction” gets distracted, too.

Teachers, who put up with a lot already, know this and are doing something about it when they have the power to do so. A University of Nebraska study discovered that seven out of 10 college professors have instituted some kind of phone ban. Public school teachers need the same power.

Besides removing a source of distraction, a ban would improve kids’ lives. A Kent State University study of 500 undergrads found heavy smartphone use had a negative impact on grades, anxiety, health and led to lower life satisfaction. We hear how kids today have never felt so much stress and anxiety. Well, get rid of technology and go back to paper and pencils, and I bet kids would be happier.

Last, but not least, removing smartphones from the classroom would reduce the likelihood of cheating. Numbskulls today can take a quick glance at their handy hand-held and cheat to their heart’s content. I know your kid doesn’t do this, but other cherubs do, and it’d be smart to make it harder for cheaters.

Some will argue that kids need smartphones because there may be a terrorist attack or school shooting and parents need to know if their child is OK. Sorry, but I’m a proponent of free-range children. I believe kids can handle themselves for a brief bit free from parents’ hovering. During emergencies, I trust school administrators to act as capable guardians until parents can get on scene. In fact, a parent able to call a student who may be hiding could imperil the child and others.

Naysayers might also say that schools have become so dependent on the internet for homework, parent-teacher conferencing and the like that students require smartphone capabilities. Granted, but we’ve already got something in Maine that serves this purpose: school-issued computers. While I’ve never supported the program begun by then-Gov. Angus King in the early 2000s, Maine’s laptop computer initiative provides students with a computer that can do anything a smartphone can do.

I think we should ban laptops, too, but maybe we should just start with banning smartphones. One step at a time, as we disentangle our children from the web we’ve created.

Literally.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.

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